HEISER: District football playoff expansion increases opportunity, diminishes achievement
- District 3 is set to expand its football playoff field from 32 teams to 44 teams.
- The expansion would bring football in line with the number of district qualifiers in other sports.
- The football expansion will likely increase the number of 5-5 and 6-4 teams that make districts.
Some common synonyms for mediocrity are average, ordinary and undistinguished.
Typically, when you think of teams worthy of advancing to postseason competition, those are not the terms that leap to mind.
The playoffs should be reserved for teams that achieve — minimally — at a level that is significantly above average.
A .500 or .600 regular-season record certainly does not reach that rather low bar.
That’s why the recent report that District 3 is set to expand the number of football qualifiers by nearly 38 percent is disappointing.
That expansion — with rare exceptions — will reward the ordinary, rather than honor the extraordinary. It's more of the "everybody-deserves-a-ribbon" mentality.
For those who haven’t heard, District 3 is set to expand the football playoffs from 32 teams to 44 teams this fall. That means nearly 50 percent of the 93 schools that offer football in the district will make the playoffs.
Here’s how it shakes out.
Class 6-A: Stays at eight teams.
Class 5-A: Increases from eight teams to 14.
Class 4-A: Goes from eight to 10 teams.
Class 3-A: Increases from four to six teams.
Class 2-A: Doubles from two to four teams.
Class 1-A: Remains at two teams.
If that system was in place last year, four of the 12 additional qualifiers would’ve had .500 records, while six would’ve had 6-4 marks.
The only teams from last season that had legitimate arguments that they belonged in the district playoffs, but got snubbed, were Cedar Cliff (7-3) in 5-A and Delone Catholic (8-2) in 2-A. The Squires are the only additional York-Adams League team that would’ve made the district field in 2017 if the 2018 expansion was in effect.
The expansion will make absolutely sure that no deserving team is excluded. It will also add a bunch of .500 or .600 teams that have practically zero chances of making any significant noise in the playoffs.
Expanding opportunity will likely mean more routs: Those in favor of the expansion — and there are many — will also argue that adding 12 teams adds opportunities for players to experience the postseason.
That is certainly true.
Those players will have also have the opportunity to get pounded by clearly superior opponents.
Last year, for instance, the average margin of victory in district first-round games was more than 29 points. Only three of those games could’ve been considered upsets, and none were major. A No. 6 seed beat a No. 3 seed, a No. 5 seed beat a No. 4 seed and a No. 2 seed beat a No. 1 seed.
In the games where a No. 8 seed took on a No. 1 seed, or a No. 7 seed battled a No. 2 seed, the average margin of victory was a whopping 36.5 points, with the better seed winning each of those games by at least 21 points.
The number of district blowouts will likely only increase by adding more 5-5 or 6-4 teams.
Top seeds will still rule: In addition, the likelihood of any of those 12 new teams actually winning a district title is extremely remote.
Since the football playoffs were expanded to six classes in 2016, 11 of the 12 District 3 champions were seeded No. 1 or No. 2. The only outlier was No. 5 Harrisburg in 2016, and that exception was largely because Micah Parsons transferred from Central Dauphin to Harrisburg in midseason.
Parsons was considered one of the top players in the nation and is now at Penn State, where he may start as a true freshman. His arrival instantly boosted Harrisburg from a good team to a great team.
So, the expansion of district qualifiers will almost certainly not alter the ultimate district outcomes. The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds will still advance to the state playoffs, while most of the 12 new additions will likely be sent home after mercy-rule losses in the first round or quarterfinals.
Smaller expansion more appropriate: If expansion was needed (and that’s very debatable), a more reasonable expansion would’ve added just two teams to both the 5-A and 3-A classes. Under that formula, both Cedar Cliff and Delone would’ve made the district field a year ago, without adding a large wave of 5-5 and 6-4 teams.
Yes, the expansion means the number of district football qualifiers will fall in line with most other district sports. That’s true. It’s also true that the district fields for the other sports are also unnecessarily bloated.
Scheduling must be revised: In addition, the football expansion means schools will now need to start their seasons in Week 0 if they still want to play 10 regular-season games. By doing that, coaches will now have just a single preseason game to prepare for the regular season. Only two York-Adams teams (West York and Fairfield) had Week 0 games in 2017.
It will require a lot of unnecessary scheduling revisions just to accommodate an unneeded expansion.
Average teams will see their opportunities increased, but in the process, true achievement will be diminished.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.